Lord Young vs The Ambulance Chasers

Recently I’ve been reading Lord Young’s report common sense, common safety. As you probably know (unless you’ve been hiding in a bunker), it advocates an approach to health and safety that is proportionate; it also discusses the related apparent compensation culture.

The various authorities and organisations which you might think would have been in the firing line have been falling over themselves to express that they “warmly welcome” the report. I thought this might be civil service code for the exact opposite, in a scramble to align with the wielder of power in a “McCarthy witch hunt” environment. But, when I read the report, I find it’s surprisingly accessible (written in the first person), sensible, measured (for the most part) and sometimes delightfully passionate, borne out of frustration. It’s actually quite supportive of some existing systems (like the way high hazard industries are controlled) and recognises that there are some good people out there championing the cause of health and safety.

I’m aiming to talk about different aspects of the report in the next few blogs. For this, one, I’m starting with the compensation culture. I’ll keep it as simple as possible, but not too simple, just like Albert Einstein advised.

Lord Young (let’s call him Dave, in keeping with his more accessible style) recognises that, largely, the compensation culture is more one of perception rather than fact. But, we live in a world of celebrity, where people are famous for being famous, without any substance whatsoever; perception, right or wrong, changes behaviour. In the case of health and safety, it has caused a good deal of damage to the fabric of society already and, if left unchecked, will cause further damage.

Dave points out the problem of unforeseen consequences of well intentioned legislation. This is the same sort of thing we now have with an under funded, overburdened university system that, last year, was unable to find places for 200,000 students. This, apparently, can all be traced back to the days of John Major. This social engineering has raised expectations that everyone will go to university but the places and funding are simply not there.

Similarly the compensation culture can be traced back to legislative changes. In short, we saw the rise of claims management companies, personal injury lawyers and the ability to advertise and offer financial incentives to refer claims. Their aggressive “no win, no fee” advertising created the perception and expectation of “no financial risk” litigation and that everything is actionable, however trivial. This in turn has created a fear of litigation and a blame culture, leading to risk aversion by businesses. This invariably leads to disproportionate responses to try to eliminate even trivial risks.

Dave makes a number of quite simple (but actually quite difficult in practice) suggestions to try to combat this issue. These amount to changes in insurance, advertising rules, claims procedures and the fee structure. He would seek to simplify and cap costs by extending the new Road Traffic Accident Personal Injury scheme. He also wants to make very clear that people should not be sued for well-intentioned “good Samaritan” actions (unless obviously negligent – these actions have succeeded in the US but none have been brought so far in the UK, despite the perception). This is not only sensible but a moral imperative – we do not want a society to stand idly by watching someone die because they fear they might do something wrong (and so face legal action) in the rescue attempt.

So far, so good Dave..